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Green Christmas Q&A 

When will Santa’s workshops have to move because the North Pole has become open water year-round?

It is difficult to predict when the ice will disappear year-round from the Arctic because that depends on the rate of warming. With every degree of global warming, the Arctic loses 4 million square kilometres of ice. That means that we need about 4 degrees of global warming to get rid of it all - different climate models produce different predictions as to when 4 degrees of warming will be reached, in part because climate feedbacks are extremely complex, and in part, because it depends on whether we act now to limit further warming. However, recent research by the  'Refugias of the Future' project at York suggests that if we do nothing to mitigate climate change 4 degrees of warming could be reached by the year 2300, so Santa will have to move during the summer. Research indicates that the likely last place where sea ice will remain will be off the north coast of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.... so perhaps Santa could relocate there for a few years. 


How far does the growth of Christmas trees in the UK go towards offsetting the energy used for Christmas lights?

The carbon absorbed in growing Christmas trees is released when they are cut down, so there is an opinion that one can consider Christmas trees to be almost net-zero - unless you landfill or burn them, in which case you'll be adding up to 16kg CO2eq emissions. This effectively doubles the energy impact from Christmas lights. On the other hand, if you keep the tree growing in a pot in the garden or are lucky enough to have a rent-a tree service locally, that would be a much more sustainable option. 

If you compare the growth of Christmas trees in the UK to importing the trees from Norway and Sweden for example, then the avoided transport emissions are significant. With a very rough calculation, a HGV-load of Christmas trees travelling the 1300 miles from Norway to the UK would produce around 1650 kg CO2eq.

The amount of energy used for Christmas lighting depends on the display size and choice of bulbs. According to energy switching firm Flipper, leaving Christmas lights on for 10 hours a day over the 12 days of Christmas would lead to enough CO2 being produced to inflate 64 balloons per household!

What is the carbon footprint of the Christmas light extravaganza?

The per household use of Christmas lights, especially if using LEDs, turns out to be fairly negligible, about 14kg CO2eq - the equivalent of up to 60 miles of car travel. Remember, if you're using incandescent bulbs, it will be 10 times higher and extravagant displays using incandescent light bulbs could be up to 1260 kg CO2eq, or 3800 miles car travel. Nonetheless, a fun fact from one news article was that the 6.6 TWhr used in the US for festive lighting in 2008 was more than the electricity consumption of El Salvador in 2016! If we then very roughly extrapolate that to a global figure of approximately 26.8 million tonnes CO2eq, this is roughly the same as what just UK households use on air travel. 

More sustainable options are to reduce your lighting display, use solar-powered lights or LEDs, which last up to 20 times longer than regular bulbs and are more energy-efficient. 



From a climate perspective, is it better to buy online or in the shop? What should people take into account?

This is something a lot of people will be thinking about as more shoppers than ever are predicted to shop online this Christmas! In fact, the centre for retail research predicted that online shopping will grow by 25% and offline shopping will decrease by 7% when compared to Christmas 2019. There are so many factors to be taken into consideration when evaluating the environmental impact of online shopping. 

Transport impacts are resulting from the number of products purchased at one time (more products means less impact on the environment per product), distance travelled, road/traffic conditions, delivery drivers combining multiple trips into one to increase efficiency, failed deliveries and returns. When consumers take one trip to a local store it emits 62g CO2-eq per item, assuming a distance of 125km and the purchase of 30 items. If these people now buy online, it will reduce their environmental impact. But, when online shopping, think about efficiency, plan out your shopping before you order because it might be that you can order multiple products from the same retailer which can all be delivered together! Moreover, forego fast delivery, as this affects the routing efficiency.

We also have carbon emissions coming from the extra packaging associated with buying products online. If cardboard packaging is used- 100 g of corrugated cardboard plus limited amounts (33 g in total) of filling material, it results in 181 g CO2-eq per item. In comparison, when shopping in person, you can use a reusable fabric shopping bag instead. Therefore, try to find companies that are reducing the amount of packing they use or are using biodegradable material, when shopping online. 



What is the most sustainable dinner?

The most climate-friendly diet is one which aims to reduce meat and dairy consumption. That being said there is plenty of ways to minimize the carbon footprint of your Christmas dinner without making it vegan. 

-Firstly, the most traditional Christmas meat, turkey, has a much smaller carbon footprint than red meats which come from ruminating animals. So, having white meat instead of red reduces the emissions of the dinner considerably. Alternatively, if you can't go without red meat you could think about buying a smaller joint.

-Secondly, it takes a lot of energy to boil vegetables and potatoes on the stove, it is much more energy-efficient, and quicker to microwave them, I thought I was being lazy by microwaving my veg and potatoes all the time, but it turns out I’m just looking after the planet!

-Third, and most importantly, food waste contributes about 6% to global greenhouse gas emissions, and 40% of that comes from the food we throw away. To reduce your food waste, you should plan your shopping, plan out recipes for leftovers and freeze leftovers. Another tip to reduce food waste is to only buy what we need, rather than letting retailers draw us into 3 for 2 offers when we only wanted one of the products in the first place. Another way to reduce food waste is to compost vegetable peelings. If food waste isn’t collected by the council in your local area, it might be worth googling to see if there are any local composting schemes you could get involved with!

The LoveFoodHateWaste Twitter page is doing an advent countdown with a different tip everyday of how we can reduce and reuse our leftovers. One of my favourite ideas that I’ve found on their website to use leftover mince pies is mince pie brownies! Their website also includes portion planners and storage tips for food. The portion planner is particularly useful if you’re cooking for more people than you’re used to this Christmas, and the storage guide provides tips on the best way to store and freeze different types of leftovers so you can have them later in the year. 

Buying local is better for the environment but only marginally better. If you take a product like beef, for example, transport accounts for less than 1% of its environmental impact and for most food products it is less than 10%. The products which have a high impact associated with transport are things that are air freighted such as berries and asparagus. One US study found that swapping red meat for white meat one day of the week had the same environmental impact as buying all household goods locally. So buying local has very little benefit in terms of carbon emissions, however, it is a great way to support local businesses!


What should we do with Christmas leftover food?

There are many things you can do with leftovers. Any leftovers can be separated into portions and frozen separately to be had at a later date. With the leftover meat for example you can separate slices with greaseproof paper before freezing to easily remove them for future meals. 

If you have leftovers that you simply don’t want to eat anymore, there is a ‘leftover food recipe’ tool on the lovefoodhatewaste website which is great to find new ways of eating Christmas leftovers such as turkey and cranberry spring rolls and mince pie brownies! 



How much land is dedicated to growing Christmas trees in England, Europe and globally?

There is an incredible amount of land that is dedicated to growing Christmas trees all over the world. The problem with land dedication is it depends on several factors such as geographical location, maintenance cost, marketing and publicity etc. Nonetheless it is reported that, depending on how big you would like the trees to get, we can grow anywhere from 200 to 1,500 trees per acre. It takes 6 to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree for harvest. 

Pine and fir trees are purposely grown for use as Christmas trees, and are grown on plantations in many western nations, including Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Australia, the industry is relatively new, however nations such as the United States, Germany and Canada are among world leaders in annual production, with 350,000 acres of land in the United States in production for growing Christmas trees. It is reported that Denmark out of all the European countries is the one with the most land and exports the largest percentage of home-grown trees. In England we produce over 4.5 million trees annually. In regards to artificial trees it is China that is the main exporter for this type of market. 



Is hiring a tree more sustainable than getting a small living one and using it every year?

In the end there are pros and cons for both! It personally depends on the individuals’ preference, however if you decide to buy a real Christmas tree that is not locally sourced then the process of transporting it to your home increases your carbon footprint rapidly. Therefore, individuals may assume that a long-lasting fake tree would be more sustainable as you wouldn’t require annual transportation and cutting trees down. Yet this surprisingly isn’t always correct. It has been reported that either hiring a real tree which you can do or purchasing a real tree is better particularly if you dispose of it correctly. 

Reports have shown that a natural two-metre Christmas tree that does not have roots and is disposed of into a landfill after Christmas produces a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2. A two-metre tree that has roots and is properly disposed of after its use — by planting it or having it chipped — has a carbon footprint of around 3.5kg of CO2, four and a half times less. On the other hand, a two-metre Christmas tree made from plastic has a carbon footprint measuring at around 40kg of CO2, more than 10 times greater than a properly disposed of real tree. Therefore, if you have an artificial tree, you would need to use it for at least 10 years in order for its environmental impact to equal that of a responsibly-disposed natural tree.​ 

Another way in which greater sustainability can be incorporated into your festive tree tradition is by hiring a Christmas tree for the season that has already been used before. Companies like non-profit organisation Freecycle can help you source a Christmas tree that has been used by another household before, or you may be able to find one at local garden centres or plant nurseries. This is a more sustainable way as you don’t have to worry about space and replanting as services like freecycle do this for you. Although you can always get a small living tree and use it until it is too big and donate it to farms such as an Alpaca Farm as they will use the tree for eating and cleaning which is another way of upcycling! In the end it depends on choice and sometimes that fragrant smell of a real tree is second to none and renting is probably ideal!

Quick summary of benefits for renting a tree as opposed to buying one:

  • You get to enjoy a healthy, real Christmas tree 
  • In between Christmases, rented trees can be re-planted and cared for by the supplier, ready to use again next year
  • The trees provide habitats for wildlife in between festivities.
  • The trees continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in between festivities
  • The trees are pot-grown and so need less fertiliser (less resource intensive)  because the amount can be more targeted
  • You are supporting a local business
  • The first step to an environmentally-friendly spruce is to buy a local tree. Between 60 and 80% of trees in our homes are grown in Britain, many in Scotland, where they benefit from the colder weather. The closer the tree has been grown to where the customer lives, the better, limiting both its carbon footprint and theirs.



Should we have a real tree or a plastic one?

The factors that influence the sustainability of real trees is where they come from, how they were grown and how they are disposed of. If you purchase a tree from your local area, this will cut down on transportation emissions. If your tree is grown on moors, heaths or peat bogs, this may cause natural habitat loss, impacting biodiversity and carbon storage. Therefore, if possible, select trees that are grown on arable fields or grasslands, which are less biodiverse. Do not burn your real Christmas tree as this will release carbon dioxide into the air. Moreover, disposal at landfill is a lot more damaging than burning your tree. The best ways to dispose of your tree is to use it as woodchip or compost. You could try and keep a potted tree in your garden to use for several Christmases, as this will reduce your carbon footprint. Real trees grown locally and disposed of properly have a lower carbon footprint than artificial trees. 

However, if your fake tree is in good condition, continue to use it or donate it to someone else. If you keep your plastic tree for over 10 years the impact is negligible, unless it has been manufactured abroad, in which case the transportation emissions are considerable. 


What is a green alternative to wrapping paper?

Consumers in the UK will use 227,000 miles of wrapping paper each year and over 83km2 of this will end up in our bins. To avoid this, you could save wrapping paper, boxes, tissue paper and ribbons throughout the year and use those to wrap your presents. Get creative with springs of ivy and potato prints on recycled paper, to make your own custom wrapping. You could also use reusable wrapping, such as furoshiki fabric wraps or fabric bags, which can be used over and over for many years. Newspapers are another recyclable and affordable wrapping paper alternative. As an alternative to sellotape, you could use washi tape or paper tape. 



Do our actions make a difference?

Yes, our actions make a difference. Your decision to become more sustainable sends a signal to other people that the climate crisis is a real thing and that helps push for more systemic change and encourages the government and businesses to support and invest in green solutions, like veganism and renewables. 

For example, 3.5 million mince pies are binned each Christmas. 1kg of food waste is equal to 2.5 kg of CO2 equivalent, causing 16 million kg of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions as the food decomposes and releases harmful gases. This is a significant amount of carbon dioxide emissions which we could save if we used our food rather than throwing it. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95 - 115 kg a year in Europe and North America. 

Although the impact of lighting seems small, the cumulative impact of improving your lighting by switching to LED mounts up. If every UK household switched a single string of incandescent lights for its LED equivalent, more than £11 million and 29,000 tonnes of CO2 could be saved just over the 12 days of Christmas.



Are there eco alternatives to fairy lights?

During the festive period, houses draped in twinkling lights mean some cities are 20-50% brighter than usual. NASA can even see it from space! I would recommend that individuals choose LEDs over incandescent. According to the Energy Saving Trust, if you replace all the bulbs in your home with LED lights, you could reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by up to 65kg a year. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emitted when driving your car around 220 miles. An additional energy saving tip – use solar powered lights with a self-timer so that you can cap their energy usage.


Many ingredients for Christmas food are not grown locally (like the spices, raisins, almonds etc.). To be truly environmentally friendly about these goodies, what are the options apart from being a Scrooge and foregoing them?

When thinking about the environmental costs of transportation by sea, which accounts for around 60% of food miles (food miles being the kilometres travelled multiplied by the mass of product carried), it does not have a large environmental impact, as ships can carry more than planes, so it is not necessarily bad for the environment to be buying products like dried spices which have not being grown locally. In terms of transport, it is air travel that will have the largest impact on the environment. Despite accounting for around 0.2% of food miles it releases 50 times the amount of greenhouse gases as transport by sea for the same amount of food. Foods that are transported by air are some fruits and vegetables, including berries and asparagus. So, if you want to cut the environmental impacts associated with air freighting these products then stick to buying them when they are in season. Overall buying locally is not a large determining factor in the environmental impact of the food so you can be guilt-free when buying your spices and stollen - in terms of buying locally produced meats and veggies it can’t hurt to support your local businesses.


How can I decorate the house in an eco-friendly way?

If every UK household switched a single string of incandescent lights for its LED equivalent, more than £11 million and 29,000 tonnes of CO2 could be saved just over the 12 days of Christmas. Studies by NASA have revealed that parts of the earth are up to 50% brighter during holiday seasons, which wastes energy and disrupts the ecosystems of nocturnal wildlife. Eco-friendly decorations could include swapping glitter tinsel for natural foliage like pine cones, holly leaves and mistletoe. There is a variety of baubles made from wood, brass, paper and recycled glass, to decorate trees, or you could use old documents to make paper snowflakes or chains. The RSPB has a selection of fair-trade crackers made from recycled materials and inside each cracker, there is coloured paper to make nature-inspired origami at the table - something to keep everything entertained waiting for pudding.

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